Wednesday, February 27, 2019

SO DARK THE NIGHT/MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS: Arrow's Blu-ray debut of two gems from Joseph H. Lewis

OK: one of these films -- MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS -- has maybe got not so many carats, but it still offers a lot of good, old-fashioned mystery fun.

The other, however -- SO DARK THE NIGHT -- is a compelling little diamond in nowhere near the rough. It is such a stylistic gem, in fact, that TrustMovies suspects only the unduly delayed rise of filmmaker Joseph H. Lewis (shown below) into the pantheon of important movie-makers is responsible for its too-little-known reputation.

Lewis could work in just about any genre but may best be known, particularly after the current Blu-ray release of these two films, for his near-film-noir endeavors. Most movie buffs know Gun Crazy, certainly one of the filmmaker's best and most original works, along with The Big Combo. But his noir-ish western Terror in a Texas Town also deserves a place at the table.

As a kid I was particularly taken with Lewis' The Undercover Man, and A Lady Without a Passport, and much later his war film, Retreat, Hell! Once Lewis moved over to television, never to return to films, I rather forgot about him and his work. Thankfully, Arrow Academy/Arrow Home Video is bringing Lewis and that fine work back into our sites and sight.

My Name is Julia Ross stars an upcoming Nina Foch (above), quite good as the smart and energetic young lady trying to find a decent job in postwar London. To give away almost anything about the plot of the film risks major spoilers, so I'll just say that the movie is awash in mystery of the what-the-hell-is-going-on? variety and features some witty and delightful performances from a terrific supporting cast that includes the likes of Dame May Whitty (below), while offering up a mother-son relationship that is surely one for the books.

The black-and-white cinematography is crisp and bright in this beautiful new transfer, and as usual with Arrow product, the "extras" are definitely worth viewing, in particular the background to and analysis of the film by The Nitrate Diva (Nora Fiore). Ms Fiore stretches her theories a bit, but what she has to say is often fun and worth hearing.

My Name is Julia Ross runs but 65 minutes and was clearly meant to be "filler" on the second half of a double bill. But it proved popular enough to be itself be a hit for its studio (Columbia Pictures) and thus gave Lewis the opportunity to work on other, more important films. From Arrow Films, distributed here on the USA via MVD Visual, the movie arrived on Blu-ray earlier this month and is available now for purchase and (I hope) rental.

One of these "more important" movies for Lewis -- and one of the director's best -- was So Dark the Night, which, among other things, gave the well-known character actor, Hungarian-born Steven Geray (shown at right and below), a role the likes of which he would never again see, and which he filled so well that, had our always-nonsensical Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences been paying any attention to "little" movies, this fine actor would have garnered a nomination, if not the Oscar itself.

Filmmaker Lewis creates here an almost shockingly charming beginning, as our hero, a famous and very bright Parisian detective goes on vacation to a small provincial town where he hopes to relax and forget his cares. Are we surprised when trouble brews?

Not at all, but what holds us for so long is how delightful Lewis makes this town and its citizens -- almost so French-ified that they come close to cliche -- yet with something just a little bit "off." Lewis also manages a feat that few film directors ever dared: He shows us what's wrong with that typical Hollywood relationship between an older man and girl 30 years his junior.

All the sweetness and charm soon evaporate, once murder after murder arrives. You will imagine you've nailed the killer, but don't be too sure. By the end of this highly unusual, profoundly sad film, you and our hero will have gone places neither of you ever imagined.

Running only 71 minutes, So Dark the Night hit the street earlier this month via Arrow Academy, distributed here in the USA by MVD Visual. It's available now for purchase and (I hope) rental. Again, the Bonus Features are first-rate -- even better than those on the My Name is Julia Ross disc. And why not -- for this is by far the superior movie.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Alone at sea, and then a refugee: Wolfgang Fischer's provocative morality tale, STYX opens

The new movie STYX appears to be named for that titular river of myth that one must cross to get to the underworld (or from the underworld to our living earth). Though TrustMovies does not recall the word being mentioned aloud in the film, its significance will not be lost on those who see this disturbing work. In it, co-writer (with Ika Künzel) and director Wolfgang Fischer introduces us to a medical doctor, evidently a very good one, whom we initially see in action saving the life of a victim of a car accident.

Immediately after, our gal is in her very well-equipped sailboat, off on a long sail to an island she wants to visit (and which we see only in a picture book she's taken with her on the boat).

The film opens -- in Gibraltar -- with a shot of wildlife that makes you imagine you're in the tropics or jungle, but as the camera opens up, you realize, oh -- it's civilization. Or perhaps an unusual meld of the civilized and the wild.

Herr Fischer, the Austrian filmmaker shown at right, has put together a movie that is as visceral as it is thoughtful and provocative. The scenes of our heroine -- strongly and vividly brought to life German actress Susanne Wolff (below and whom the press kit tells us is herself a credentialed sailor) -- managing all that is required for safe, smart seafaring, are handled by the actress, director and cinematographer (Benedict Neuenfels) with utter aplomb.

Once out to sea, our good doctor, Reike, meets (via shortwave radio) a nice, helpful fellow who warns her of an upcoming storm. It hits but is not especially harmful. The next day, however, she encounters a boat full of what looks like African refugees seeking European asylum. They appear to need immediate help, so she calls this in. The Coast Guard tells her to keep her distance, turn around and leave; they're handling it all. But as the hours pass, they are clearly not, and probably intentionally so.

Several of the refugees have jumped overboard and are trying to swim to her sailboat. One of them (Gedion Oduor Wekesa, above) manages the distance, barely, and from here onward, Styx becomes a kind of moral parable involving everything from the Hippocratic Oath to lawbreaking, common decency (or perhaps only how we used to define this term), survival and a whole lot more.

There is damned little exposition to the movie. What we see (and hear) is what we get, so the viewer must decipher more than is necessary in most films. This is nowhere near impossible, however, and soon we are placed firmly in the mind and moral quandary of Reike and her rescue as she and he do what they must, so far as they understand this. (The film's ending made me hope for a sequel, in which the legal and moral ramifications of Reike's -- and the Coast Guard's -- actions are further explored.)

Considering the question of immigration and what it means to Europe the rest of the western world, the movie could hardly be more timely. Yet Styx proves a good deal more than mere agitprop. It is also a very well-made movie that functions on one level as superior entertainment, even as it forces the viewer to question what s/he would do in a circumstance like this one. It may bring to mind another memorable film, Italy's Terrafirma, which in one particular scene takes an even more difficult look at immigration and the choices we face.

From Film Movement, in English and German (with English subtitles) and running just 94 minutes, Styx has its U.S. theatrical premiere this Wednesday, February 27, in New York City at Film Forum, after which it will play 25 or more cities across the country, including, come March 15, Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal) and Boca Raton (at the Living Room Theaters). Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Photography, spying and the joy of Communism in Peter Stephan Jungk's documentary, TRACKING EDITH

A documentary in which the content and tale told are much more interesting that the actual execution of the material itself, TRACKING EDITH is the story of Edith Tudor-Hart (née Edith Suschitzky), born in Vienna in 1908, who emigrated to London, acted as a spy for Russia's KGB, and was simultaneously an even better -- first-rate, really -- photographer who beautifully captured many of the social issues of her time, from England's industrial decline and the plight of refugees of the Spanish Civil war to Britain's housing policy and the needs of its children.

Edith was also the great aunt of the filmmaker here, Peter Stephan Jungk (shown left), who is to be commended for bringing to our attention this very interesting woman and her work, even if the result, as a movie, is somewhat mediocre. If nothing else, Edith's photography that we see here should make many viewers ready to line up at any exhibition of her work that might find its way to their locale. It's that good.

Her spying was something else. As a Jew who had to leave Austria due to the Nazis rise to power, she -- as did so many others of the day -- embraced Communism as, at very least, an antidote to the fascism that was growing ever stronger during this time. While many eventually understood Russia's Stalin to be as crazy and murderous as was Adolf Hitler, Edith evidently clung to her belief that Communism would make the world a much better place.

The lovely Edith (shown in self-portrait on poster, top) is said to have recruited for the KGB a number of very important spies -- often from the cream of the Britain's crop. She was responsible for the recruitment of both Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, two of the infamous (or famous, depending on your viewpoint) Cambridge Spy Ring, that, in Russia, was known as the Magnificent Five.

Filmmaker Jungk uses everything from archival photos and interviews with family members, historians, photo historian (above, right) even an ex-KGB member (below) to somehow give us a fuller portrait of our photographer/spy. Individually, the interviews make some sense, yet our Edith never really coalesces as she might, and the constant jumping from one subject and/or person to another becomes annoying over time.

Further, the use of animation (below) that tries to goose up the proceedings to would-be thriller status seems almost silly and certainly pointless. This may stand in for the often "acted-out" segments of certain documentaries, or perhaps take the place of archival footage that might have been difficult to obtain (though I rather doubt this: Britain's Blitz by the Nazi's was undocumented?), but as seen here,  the animation seems both unnecessary and rather clunky.

The family members interviewed, including brother Wolf Suschitzky (below, center) and nephew Peter Suschitzky (below, left, who became a noted cinematographer and credits Edith for steering him away from science and toward art), provide the most interesting dialog and may make you want to learn even more about this unusual woman who gave birth to a lovely son who, in his younger years, turned schizophrenic and never recovered.

Finally, it's Edith photography (above and below), seen heavily over the end credits, that seems most special. This woman clearly had a gift -- and used it. I hope I'll get to see an exhibition of her work before I depart this world.

From First Run Features and running 92 minutes, Tracking Edith arrives on DVD this coming Tuesday, February 26 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Mads Mikkelsen: on ice in Joe Penna's endurance test, ARCTIC, and prone to more cold weather and murder in Jonas Åkerlund's ugly, envelope-pushing POLAR

Mads Mikkelsen is one of TrustMovies' favorite living actors. We'll watch him in just about anything, and now, after his two current endeavors, we feel that we have. ARCTIC, the better -- if still pretty tiresome to sit through (unless you're a glutton for punishment) -- of the two films finds the actor stranded in that titular locale after a plane crash. Except for its frozen wasteland, the film has oodles in common with the earlier survival-at-sea movie, All Is Lost, which was infinitely easier to sit through because there was so much more going on and we learned more about the film's single character than we ever do here.

As directed and co-written (with Ryan Morrison, who also edited the movie) by Joe Penna (shown at right), what's mostly going on in Arctic is a lot of trekking and trudging across frozen vast white spaces, as our hero hopes to be rescued or reach some kind of civilization.

That's it, plot-wise. To even begin to describe the very few "incidents" that try to enliven that plot would be to give away the minor spoilers the film offers. Best to concentrate on Mr. Mikkelsen, below, who proves, as usual, quite watchable.

The character he plays, Overgård (we know this only from the name on the jacket the man wears), is clearly highly intelligent and resourceful -- de rigueur for this kind of film -- which of course will help him in his quest/journey. Yet the most interesting thing we note about Overgård is his his concern and caring for life -- in whatever form it takes. This is clear early on, as he catches a fish, and later come to further fruition via his treatment of one of the only two other humans we (vaguely) meet in this movie.

If you are a fan of lone survivor movies -- and not those of the horror/thriller/slasher sort -- Arctic may be quite to your taste. I found it slow going, with a finale (spoiler just ahead) that, while welcome on one level, utterly disappoints on another, via its obvious nod to the necessities of feel-good, commercial cinema. Overall, while I admired things about the film, I didn't actually enjoy it much.

From Bleecker Street and running 98 minutes, Arctic opened February 1 on the coasts and will hit South Florida tomorrow, Friday, February 22. In Miami, it will play the AMC's Sunset Place 24 and Aventura 24 and Regal's South Beach 18, in Fort Lauderdale at The Classic Gateway, in Boca Raton at the Regal Shadowood, in Boynton Beach at the Cinemark, in West Palm Beach at the AMC City Place 20 and Cobb's Downtown at the Mall 16 in Palm Beach Gardens, and in Jupiter at the Cineopolis. Wherever you may live around the USA, click here to find your nearest theater(s).

We get to see lots more of Mr. Mikkelsen in POLAR, the junky, envelope-pushing, let's-out-Tarantino-little-Quentin movie directed by Jonas Åkerlund (shown below), with a  screenplay by Jayson Rothwell, from the graphic novel by Victor Santos.

In the film, Mikkelsen plays Duncan Visla, the world's best assassin-for-hire (a profession that is not exactly "heroic," right?) who, when retirement time comes, is betrayed by his "boss" so that said boss can have what ought to have been Visla's multi-million-dollar retirement bonus.

The boss (played by an over-the-top Matt Lucas, below), by the way, is doing this to all his retirement-age assassins. Perhaps an assassins' union is in order? In any case, this nasty guy has sent out his supposedly best set of young assassins to murder the old ones. But in trying to reach their prey, these "kids" decide to murder a whole bevy of those whom they find "in between."

While watching this increasingly florid crock of shit you can't help wondering: Did the filmmakers somehow imagine that because they've dressed their kids in cutesy costumes and chosen perhaps the weirdest set of victims so far seen -- the most horrible is the character who seems to have stumbled from My 600-Pound Life into his or her (not sure which) 600-Pound Death.

This is envelope-pushing, all right, and it stinks of near complete inhumanity and sleaze. Ooooooh: Let's laugh while we watch these folk being "creatively" murdered. It's not dark, it's dreck. Ah, but there is that attempt at humanity provided by our Duncan's near-constant flashing back to a murder episode that he clearly regrets. Oh, so sad.

In the supporting cast is Vanessa Hudgens as the sweet but clearly unhappy neighbor who lives across from Duncan's hide-out home. Hudgens, above, right, with Mikkelsen, is very good (compare this performance with that of her Maureen in the recent Rent: Live on TV), and so, I suppose, are many others in the large cast. But to what avail?

Mikkelsen himself (above, further above, and torso-wise below) seen mostly in black eye-patch, is reliable as always, and in this film, unlike Arctic, we get to see much more of him -- killing, cracking-wise, fucking in the nude, and so forth. At age 53 he still looks fabulous and seems to grow more versatile, acting-wise, with each new year. He even executive produced this film (he must have been impressed by the success of his envelope-pushing Hannibal TV series). But again, to what avail?

Streaming now via Netflix, Polar runs just under two full hours. The film's finale actually proved a nice surprise (to me, at least; you might have guessed the connection) that even made good sense. But, boy, how I wished there had been a decent movie in front of that interesting ending.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Suzannah Herbert/Lauren Belfer's WRESTLE is a riveting, heartfelt teen sports documentary

The best documentary about high school sports competitions TrustMovies has seen since the Oscar-winning Undefeated (from 2011), WRESTLE, the new film directed by Suzannah Herbert, co-directed by Lauren Belfer, and co-written by both of them, along with Pablo Proenza, has been compared to the basketball documentary Hoop Dreams but strikes me as much closer in form, spirit and running-time to Undefeated.

So richly, quietly and thoroughly does the filmmaking team manage to embed you in the lives, needs, problems and desires of its quartet of high school wrestlers, by the time you leave this modest but hugely compelling little movie, you may feel that these four  young men and their wonderful wrestling coach have become part of your own family.

This is because Ms Herbert, shown at right, and Ms Belfer (below), along with Mr. Proenza (shown two photos below), who did the ace editing on the film,
became so close to their wrestlers, their families and and the team's coach that they were able to obtain footage in which emotions are real and often quite raw; humor is plentiful, too; then all of this has been edited so that what we see slowly grows into characters who are so much more than mere wrestlers. We view their young lives, as well as those of their family, friends and -- in one case, paramor -- as fraught, tentative yet hopeful.

Wrestle, finally, is about much more than merely winning the game,
though the suspense and hope registered along this route, is terrific, too.

In addition to some interesting wrestling -- we see enough of the game to begin to appreciate the moves of the team members that lead to their wins or losses -- we also view the boys' love for family, coach and each other.

Three of the team members are black (Jaquan, Jamario and Jailen) and one white (Teague), and as the film takes place in Huntsville, Alabama, at J.O. Johnson High School, which had been on the state's list of "failing schools" for years, we also note the local cops' interactions with two of the (surprise, surprise!) black team members. Race seems less of a problem among the team mates than in society at large. (The movie's sweetest, most tender moment comes as Teague places his head on Jaquan's shoulder.)

The co-directors actually lived in Huntsville full-time while filming, and this must in part account for the enormous intimacy achieved here, as well as for the filmmakers' ability to be in the right place at the right time so often.

The four boys are wonderfully diverse; we root for them all, including their coach. And, yes, he's white, but I hope we don't have to hear any more bullshit about why we should not show a white man helping poor, deprived black kids. (For anyone who insists upon that, may I recommend you read this splendid and appropriate article, The Trouble With Uplift by Adolf Reed from that great progressive magazine, The Baffler.) Who wins and who loses will surprise and move you. And the final end-credit notes regarding Where are they now? will do the same.

In terms of intimacy and accomplishment, Wrestle is also on a part with 2017's wonderful documentary, Night School. And though we learn the usual things we'd expect from a documentary about a team hoping to win a championship, the filmmakers seem to deliberately stop short of providing any kind of actual "happy ending."

The lives of these boys have barely begun, yet already, the challenges ahead seem massive. This movie will entertain you, sure, but it will also make you think and feel and care and, yes, wrestle with the idea of what America was and is and could be. I mean, really: what more could you ask from a movie today? Oh, right: explosions, car chases and lots of special effects.

From Oscilloscope Films and running 96 minutes, Wrestle opens this Friday, February 22, in New York City at the Village East Cinema, and on Friday, March 1, in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center. I can't find any other between-the-coasts screenings listed on the film's web site, but perhaps once the rave reviews and great world-of-mouth appear after opening, we'll see more availability around the rest of the country. Hope so!

Sunday, February 17, 2019

February's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: BODYGUARD -- Sizzle and Fizzle

This Netflix/BBC series created by Jed Mercurio, below (Line of Duty, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Frankenstein), was wildly popular across the pond, making its star, Richard Madden (Game of Thrones, Cinderella, Medici), a widely-speculated replacement for Daniel Craig upon his retirement from the Bond franchise. Madden is said to be in talks about Bond and also in line for another ‘Bodyguard’ series. The part surprised Madden and us with his recent Golden Globe win (‘Best Performance in a TV Series’) for his charismatic policeman in the thriller, having already distinguished himself in romantic roles. A sleeper was his lead in A Promise with Rebecca Hall and Alan Rickman by French director Patrice Leconte. Madden made this tepid historical drama and box-office failure worth viewing. He simply has that something extra that makes you watch and watch. 

The salient feature of Bodyguard is suspense, the kind of heart-in-mouth drama that doesn’t sneak up on cats’ paws but seizes your attention from the very first few minutes of the thriller, making it difficult for the reviewer to spoil the action without in theory spoiling the experience.

Readers of my monthly reviews know I am somewhat cavalier about plot-spoiling — and purposefully, rather than in disregard of the reader/viewer. Good material is not about plot ins-and-outs so much as the journey; great stories are savored not for ‘what happened’ but for the emotional arc the characters experience and the more meaningful truths revealed by the story.

Knowing the plot basics positions one better to think about the characters’ growth, failures, and larger message, rather than having to keep track of the plot mechanics as well as to continue assessing the characters’ ‘interiority’. Hence we revisit Death of a Salesman, Hamlet, The Godfather, etc., over and again to re-experience the characters handling of their travail — glad, in fact, to have the plot basics out of the way. Sometimes a perfect spoil helps the viewer through the twists and turns and into the thought-provoking stuff.

David Budd, our bodyguard, is a nervous-making protagonist to start — a character whose history makes him arresting, above and beyond the police- and-political machinations that drive the series. And Madden, here in his native Scottish accent, compels your attention. He’s reluctantly separated from his wife (Sophie Rundle, lovely actress from Peaky Blinders, The Bletchley Circle, Jamestown), largely it seems as the result of PTSD effects from his military service in Afghanistan — one gathers his erratic, obsessive behavior has made him a problematic partner. Budd, however, has a cool shell that he uses to insulate himself from emotion and direct his obsessive focus to the task-at-hand. Nevertheless his stress leaks constantly, and although we follow with confidence as he disposes of threat after threat, we are nevertheless fearful that one of these moments the tightly-wound Budd will blow. The ‘plot’ consists of crisis piled on crisis providing ongoing anxiety to the viewer who worries for the outwardly strong, inwardly brittle Budd.

Screen-writer Mercurio, himself a physician and a novelist, cleverly makes the mental health issues of his protagonist immediate, but is not as clever at plotting.

The series launches with a near bang as Budd, a police officer traveling off-duty by train with his two kids, confronts a woman passenger, a terrorist wearing a suicide vest, threatening to blow herself up. Budd immediately shifts seamlessly into work mode — and his deft handling of a desperate situation gets him promoted to protecting a prominent politician, Home Secretary Julia Montague, played by Keeley Hawes (below, left, of The Durrells in Corfu and Line of Duty).

Julia Montague is a power player who showboats with a combination of bravado and extreme politics, not as officious as Ted Cruz, but similarly temperamental and difficult, sucking the air out of any situation. She’s a rabid military hawk; one political axe she grinds is a push for more government surveillance of the public to detect and prevent terrorism. (We worked our way in and out of this kind of extreme government intrusiveness in the U.S. following 9/11; terrorism appears to continue as a more immediate threat in Britain.)

Her politics are not only anathema to officer Budd, but annoy the Prime Minister and make the Home Secretary a target for assassination from any number of possible sources. The relationship that develops uneasily between Montague and Budd nevertheless is full of fizz and smolder, causing a rapid rise in tension in the early episodes, only to fizzle out as the series proceeds.

Later other characters are implicated in malfeasance and Mercurio’s closing gambit is so full of implausibilities that it damages the fabric of the whole, despite the terror of the moment remaining relentless.

Budd has wound himself into our own psyches and become so memorable that one doesn’t walk away feeling entirely betrayed by failed plotting, but certainly let down. In the main, Mercurio has satisfied in creating a rather transfixing main character plunked in a scenario that sparks but doesn’t arc.

This is another example of a story that winds itself up brilliantly and fails to climb down off the cliff. It is beyond me why so many good writers fall into this trap — having a satisfying exit plan/resolution is so crucial to the whole. Mercurio’s writing here leans too much on dizzying disposal of characters and complications involving figures in whom we have little emotional investment. It’s gimmicky.

(The limited streaming series that marches beautifully to the richest, most worthy conclusion of any I have watched in recent years is Scott Frank’s brilliantly paced, emotionally satisfying Godless on Netflix, a Western with Jeff Daniels and Brits Jack O’Connell, and Michelle Dockery.)

One hopes Mercurio takes into account the near-unanimous criticism of Bodyguard that accompanied its praise and popularity and digs in more satisfyingly to a few main characters. In plotting a second series, it would complement the whole to include backstory and development of Budd’s relationship with his separated spouse, Vicky, above, left.

The above post was written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman.